Every year, college football fans are introduced to a handful of players that become household names by the end of the season. Whether it’s a true freshman playing for the first time, a junior college recruit stepping into the lineup or a player on the roster that’s finally ready to assume a starting job, predicting which players will breakout any year is never an easy task.
The Pac-12 is top heavy at quarterback in 2014, featuring Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, UCLA’s Brett Hundley and Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly. But there’s room for some of the names to move around in the middle of the quarterback rankings, including Colorado’s Sefo Liufau or California’s Jared Goff.
On the defensive side, keep an eye on players like Oregon’s DeForest Buckner, USC’s Delvon Simmons and Arizona State’s Salamo Fiso.
Defining what is a breakout player is nearly impossible. Everyone has a different perspective on how players are viewed around the conference and nationally. Athlon's list of breakout players for 2014 tries to take into account which names will be known nationally (not just within the conference) by the end of season. So while some of these players on this list are known to fans of a particular team, the rest of the conference or nation might not be as familiar.
Pac-12 Breakout Players for 2014
Devon Allen, WR, Oregon
With a knee injury expected to sideline Bralon Addison for the 2014 season, the Ducks need new targets to emerge for quarterback Marcus Mariota. Addison isn’t the only loss at receiver in Eugene, as Josh Huff and Daryle Hawkins (85 receptions in 2013) have expired their eligibility. Allen closed out a breakout spring with two catches for 94 yards and two scores in the spring game. And the gridiron isn’t the only place Allen is making news this offseason. He won the U.S. track title in 110 hurdles in late June and won USA Track & Field athlete of the week honors in early July. Allen has the speed and athleticism to become one of the Ducks’ top playmakers in 2014.
Victor Bolden, WR, Oregon State
Brandin Cooks earned the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s No. 1 receiver last season, so Bolden and the other Oregon State receivers have big shoes to fill in 2014. Despite the loss of Cooks, the Beavers still have options in the passing game. Junior Richard Mullaney caught 52 passes last season, and tight end Connor Hamlett is back after grabbing 40 catches in 2013. Bolden caught only six passes for 62 yards, but he averaged 20.6 yards per kickoff return. The sophomore is projected for a bigger role in the passing game in 2014, and his explosiveness will help quarterback Sean Mannion stretch the field this year.
Devontae Booker, RB, Utah
Booker has traveled an interesting route to Utah, as he signed with Washington State out of high school but failed to qualify. After a stint at American River College, Booker is finally in Salt Lake City. The Sacramento native capped a breakout offseason with 103 yards and two scores on 19 attempts in the spring game. Utah averaged only 3.7 yards per carry in Pac-12 contests last year. Booker should help that total in 2014 and will push Bubba Poole for the starting job this fall.
DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon
New coordinator Don Pellum’s first assignment this offseason was to solidify the defensive line after the departures of Taylor Hart, Ricky Heimuli and Wade Keliikipi. The Ducks still need to bolster the depth in the trenches, but Pellum’s starting trio could be among the best in the Pac-12. Buckner played in all 13 contests in 2013 and recorded 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks. After starting the final eight games last season, Buckner is still developing as a player but continued to progress with a sack and a forced fumble in the spring game. We mentioned Buckner as a breakout player here, but junior Arik Armstead is another name to remember. Entering his junior year, Buckner is poised to emerge as one of the Pac-12’s top defensive ends.
Su’a Cravens, S, USC
Cravens was one of the top defensive players in the 2013 recruiting class and ranked as a five-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite. And as a true freshman, Cravens certainly didn’t disappoint last year. He earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors after recording 52 tackles, four interceptions and one forced fumble. Cravens should benefit from the addition of coordinator Justin Wilcox, as well as another year to participate in offseason practices. Expect Cravens to push for All-America honors this year.
Salamo Fiso, LB, Arizona State
Fiso was a standout freshman performer for Arizona State last season, recording 71 stops and three sacks in 14 games. Fiso only got better throughout the 2013 campaign and is one of just two returning starters for the Sun Devils in 2014. Fiso will anchor a linebacking corps that is talented, but inexperienced. The sophomore should be in the mix for all-conference honors and could lead the team in tackles after finishing third on the stat sheet last year. Another Arizona State linebacker to keep in mind for this list: D.J. Calhoun.
Joshua Garnett/Kyle Murphy, OL, Stanford
Four starters depart from a Stanford offensive line that was one of the best in the nation last year. However, there’s not much concern from coach David Shaw about the protection for quarterback Kevin Hogan. Left tackle Andrus Peat is an Athlon Sports All-American for 2014, and the line has breakout players like Garnett and Murphy ready to emerge. Murphy played in 13 contests last year, while Garnett made an appearance in 14 and started against Washington State. Both Garnett and Murphy should push for All-Pac-12 honors this year.
Jared Goff, QB, California
Some may not consider Goff a breakout player after he threw for 3,488 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. However, with California expected to improve overall in the second year under coach Sonny Dykes, along with the return of a talented receiving corps, Goff could approach 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2014. As expected with any freshman quarterback, Goff had his share of ups and downs last season. He threw for 336 yards and one touchdown against Washington and completed 32 of 58 passes for 489 yards against Washington State. Goff finished the year by throwing for less than 200 yards in back-to-back games against Colorado and Stanford. With another offseason under his belt, look for Goff to take a step forward in his development and show a better overall command of the offense.
Tahaan Goodman, S, UCLA
We could pick a number of UCLA defenders here, but let’s go with Goodman as the breakout player from Jim Mora’s defense. Goodman ranked as the No. 65 prospect in the 247Sports Composite and played in 13 games as a true freshman. The California native recorded only 12 tackles and one forced fumble last season, but he is primed for a bigger role in UCLA’s secondary. With Fabian Moreau returning at cornerback, along with talented players like senior Anthony Jefferson, junior Randall Goforth and sophomore Priest Willis, the Bruins’ secondary should be one of the best in the Pac-12 this season.
Sefo Liufau, QB, Colorado
It’s not easy being a true freshman quarterback in the Pac-12, but Liufau was thrown into the fire in 2013 and performed well in his first season in Boulder. Liufau finished with 1,779 yards and 12 touchdowns on 149 completions. The Washington native threw for 364 yards and three scores against California and finished the season by completing 23 of 46 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns against Utah. Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre and coordinator Brian Lindgren helped to turn David Fales from a two-star junior college quarterback into one of the top passers in the WAC/Mountain West. Top receiver Paul Richardson will be missed, but MacIntyre and Lindgren should help Liufau take a step forward in his development in 2014.
Vince Mayle, WR, Washington State
With quarterback Connor Halliday and one of the Pac-12’s top receiving corps returning, the Cougars’ offense will be tough to stop in 2014. Washington State led the nation with 756 pass attempts last year, so there’s plenty of opportunities for players like Mayle to catch passes. Gabe Marks led the team with 74 receptions last season, but Mayle is a name to remember after finishing his first season in Pullman with 42 catches for 539 yards and seven scores. The 6-foot-3 target slimmed down during the offseason, and all signs point to Mayle becoming a more prominent target for Halliday.
Cyler Miles, QB, Washington
Miles was suspended for spring practice due to an off-the-field incident but was reinstated to the team in May. The sophomore is behind Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams in learning Washington’s new offense, but Miles is expected to claim the starting job by the season opener. The Colorado native ranked as the No. 105 overall prospect in the 2012 signing class by the 247Sports Composite and worked as the backup to Keith Price in 2013. Price missed time against UCLA due to injury, and Miles completed 15 of 22 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns in relief. A week later, Miles threw for 162 yards and one score in a 69-27 victory over Oregon State. The sophomore has plenty of upside, and with an ability to hurt defenses through the air or on the ground with his legs, Miles is a quarterback to watch in 2014.
DaVonte’ Neal, WR, Arizona
After a one-year stint at Notre Dame, Neal transferred to Arizona and sat out the 2013 season due to NCAA transfer rules. Neal didn’t make a huge impact in his one year with the Fighting Irish, but he’s poised to emerge as a key contributor for the Wildcats. Arizona is loaded with talent at receiver, including senior Austin Hill who returns after missing all of last season due to a torn ACL. In addition to Hill, the Wildcats return Nate Phillips, Samajie Grant and Trey Griffey in the receiving corps. With a crowded receiving corps, expect Arizona coaches to use Neal some in the backfield to take advantage of his athleticism and speed.
Tyree Robinson, S, Oregon
The Ducks have a few holes to fill in the secondary, but this unit is headlined by All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Three starting spots were up for grabs this spring, with Robinson in the mix at the safety position. The California native ranked as the No. 150 recruit in the 2013 247Sports Composite and used a redshirt year in his first season on campus. At 6-foot-4, Robinson has the size and athleticism to be a future star in Oregon’s secondary.
Delvon Simmons, DL, USC
With Leonard Williams on one side, and Simmons expected to emerge at the other end position, USC’s defensive line will be among the best in the nation. Simmons sat out last year due to NCAA transfer rules but recorded 27 tackles (six for a loss) at Texas Tech in 2012. The 6-foot-6, 300-pound defensive end should help to anchor USC’s 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Other Breakout Players to Watch
Budda Baker, CB, Washington
Baker was a huge pickup for new coach Chris Petersen. The Washington native ranked as the No. 55 prospect in the 247Sports Composite and has the athleticism to line up at defensive back or on offense at receiver. Marcus Peters is the only proven commodity in the secondary, which means three jobs will be up for grabs in the fall. Expect Baker to push for time at cornerback or safety.
Marcus Ball, S, Arizona State
Ball was expected to play a significant role in the Arizona State secondary last season, but a shoulder injury forced him to take a redshirt year. The Ohio native is poised to start in 2014, as the Sun Devils have a significant amount of turnover on defense this year. Ball has the necessary speed and athleticism to quickly blossom into one of the top freshman defensive backs in the Pac-12.
Bryce Bobo, WR, Colorado
The Buffaloes are searching for a new No. 1 receiver after the departure of Paul Richardson to the NFL. Bobo and teammate Nelson Spruce appear to be up to the task, as this trio combined for 13 receptions in the spring game. Bobo’s eligibility is a concern, but all signs point to him playing in the opening game against Colorado State in August.
Daquawn Brown, CB, Washington State
Washington State’s secondary must be revamped after the departure of four starters, including standout safety Deone Bucannon. Brown should be the headliner for the Cougars’ secondary after playing in 13 games as a true freshman last year. Brown recorded 50 tackles, two interceptions and five pass breakups in 2013 and is poised for an even bigger sophomore campaign.
Thomas Duarte, WR, UCLA
Duarte played in 13 games as a true freshman last season and caught 16 passes for 214 yards and three scores. Expect Duarte to be an even bigger part of the passing attack this year, especially if UCLA’s offensive line plays with more consistency and gives junior quarterback Brett Hundley more time to throw.
Gionni Paul, LB, Utah
Miami transfer was slated to play a significant role at linebacker for the Utes in 2014. However, Paul suffered a broken foot in April and is expected to miss at least five months. If Paul returns to full strength in time for the season opener, he should be able to regain a spot in Utah’s starting 11 on defense.
John Ross, WR, Washington
With Kasen Williams returning from a leg injury, along with the departure of Damore’ea Stringfellow, Ross is primed for a bigger role in Washington’s offense in 2014. As a true freshman last year, he caught 16 passes for 208 yards and one score. Ross also averaged 23.2 yards per kickoff return in 2013.
Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona
There’s not much in the way of proven options in Arizona’s running back stable for 2014. Ka’Deem Carey left early for the NFL, and Pierre Cormier retired due to a medical condition. Wilson and fellow freshmen Zach Green and Jonathan Haden will compete for carries this fall, but Wilson – the No. 246 prospect in the 247Sports Composite – could emerge as the No. 1 back.